Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Will America break up?

By Tom Kando

Today, you get a lecture on social structure.

Sometimes I worry that America could fall apart. Countries do fall apart. A society falls apart when private interests overtake the public good.

I went biking through the gorgeous California Gold Country this afternoon. Once again I rode by some enormous estates. 9000 square-ft mansions in the wilderness, perched on hilltops and overlooking 300-acre fenced-in properties, guarded by fierce dogs and no doubt plenty of guns.

If you have a few million dollars, you want to build yourself a fortress, a compound. Walls behind which to protect yourself and your family. The outside society is your enemy.

During their declining centuries, the Romans did the same thing. Those who could afford it built themselves lavish and well-protected latifundiae in the country side.
Later, social disintegration became total. Feudal Europe was a collection of private fiefdoms, and life was Hobbesian - short, nasty and brutish. Throughout history, in times of regression, societies disintegrate. There is a return to tribalism.

I remember an excellent study by Harvard political scientist Edward Banfield, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Banfield studied the impoverished Southern Italian town of Montegrano. He found that the dominant attitude of Montegranan families was one of distrust and envy of each other. Cooperation and mutual help were totally absent. Nepotism ruled. Every family was out for itself, and only for itself - a mafia mentality. Banfield called this “amoral familism” and he attributed much of Southern Italy’s backwardness to it.

Back when Banfield wrote his book, American sociology was in the forefront. American society was the envy of the world. It was appropriate for American social scientists to diagnose and to try to cure the ailments of other countries. We were the doctor; Italy and most other parts of the world were the patients.

I don’t want the US to become the patient. But what happens if the Tea Party and other conservative Republicans have their way, and they dismantle the welfare state, starve the government (Ronald Reagan’s words: “starve the beast”), eliminate the safety net, undermine public education, let the infrastructure rot? What happens if the common good takes a backseat to private profit? If local “autonomy” takes precedence over federal responsibility?

America has always been leery of central authority. Today, the centrifugal forces are once again on the march. “States Rights” and the 10th Amendment are very popular. At the wacky end of the spectrum, there are survivalists and secessionists.

Don’t misunderstand me: We have a long, long way before we become like Montegrano. But I do worry about the centrifugal forces unleashed by the virulent anti-government rhetoric of Tea-Partiers and other conservatives.

When I bring up analogies with Roman Latifundiae, feudalism, tribalism and amoral familism, I realize that, today, they can only be applied to America in science fiction novels such as Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Nevertheless, we should remind ourselves of society’s need to hang together, and of the benefits of a strongly united country where the public good trumps localism and particularism. Let’s be less Jeffersonian and more Hamiltonian. The federal government is your friend, not your enemy. leave comment here